Fear, sadness and anger are three of the most difficult emotions for children, and adults for that matter, to learn to manage. These emotions are interrelated in that fear can be the core emotion behind anger and sadness.
Children need to be able to modulate their emotions in order to focus their attention, to concentrate, to learn and to read other people’s nonverbal cues–body language, facial expressions and social cues.
John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, says that there are six major fears that can create obstacles to development in young children, ages 4 to 7 years.
Fear of Powerlessness. The young child is learning how to take care of his or her own needs. Dressing oneself, preparing simple snacks, tying shoes and leaving home to go to preschool or elementary school are some of the many activities that help young children increase their influence over themselves and their environment. In short, these tasks help the child gain personal power.
Every activity that we can help our young child do without assistance creates a feeling of strength and diminishes fears of powerlessness.
Any unnecessary help is a hindrance to the young child. Provide encouragement and understanding: It’s tricky to zip your coat by yourself. Offer assistance only when needed: May I help you zip your jacket?
Fear of Abandonment. Children strive towards independence, but emotionally children know they are dependent on their parents for food, shelter, clothing and love. The fear of losing one’s parents is primal, and the younger child sees no humor about ”being sold to the gypsies.” The older child of eight to twelve confronts this fear with stories where parents are out of the picture, from Hansel and Gretel to Harry Potter.
Fear of the Dark. In many ways fear of the dark relates to the fears of powerlessness and abandonment. In the dark we are vulnerable and alone. As a child, for me it was comforting to see the light shine under my bedroom door and listen to the classical music playing in my room. The light and sound meant my parents were awake and watching over me.
Fear of Bad Dreams. Young children have difficulty distinguishing dreams from reality. A dream, a television show or movie is perceived at the emotional level as an actual event. Many nightmares relate back to a child’s fears of powerlessness and abandonment.
Comfort a terrified youngster by holding the child close and telling him or her that the dream is not true. Ask the child to tell you the dream, and try to connect the dream to the fears a child may have about powerlessness and abandonment. Monsters under the bed can make anyone feel alone and powerless.
Fear of Parental Conflict. Seeing the fears of being powerless and abandoned through a child’s eyes, discord between mom and dad takes on a new dimension. Children feel powerless to affect change and worry that one or both parents may leave. Learn effective ways to handle disagreements with your partner. Seeing their parents hug in forgiveness comforts children in a way that words cannot.
Fear of Death. Young children know about death and will ask direct questions. Be prepared to give honest answers. Acknowledge the child’s sadness and loss and offer comfort with hugs and words. Being open to your child’s concerns about death will help keep lines of communication open for other feelings and concerns.
Fear is an important emotion for human survival, as the world can be a dangerous place. We should be careful not to let fear become an irrational response to an imaginary threat. For real danger we need to show our children how to respond with calculated caution.
When your child tells you he or she is afraid, be alert for these six fears. Brainstorm with your child ways to cope with his or her emotions. Be empathetic. Talk about strategies for coping with and preventing a feared situation. Look behind a statement to see the underlying emotion.
And you might leave the hall light on and check under the bed.